NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Evangelical megachurch pastor Rob Bell said he did not anticipate the firestorm he would stir with his book that questions the traditional Christian belief that a select number of believers will spend eternity in heaven while everyone else is tormented in hell.
Bell said Tuesday that he not only didn't set out to be controversial, he had no idea his best seller, "Love Wins," would bring condemnation from people like Southern Baptist Seminary President Albert Mohler, who claims Bell is leading people astray.
"The last couple of weeks have been most painful in my life," the Michigan pastor told a crowd of about 1,600 at Belmont University after an audience member asked him about the criticism he has faced. "It has taken me to a place of profound brokenness."
But he said that with God's help he has been able to learn and grow from the experience.
Even before the book was published last month, religious leaders and their followers were branding it heresy, hailing it as a breakthrough or saying it was somewhere in between. Thousands have commented good and bad on Twitter, Facebook, blogs and churches.
Bell said he wrote the book because the Christian message that God is love seems to have gotten lost.
"Is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word 'Christian,' is the first thing you hear, 'Oh those are the people who never stop talking about God's love?' Or are we known for some other things?" he asked the crowd.
"I kept meeting religious people who were incredibly dogmatic about heaven and hell when you die but didn't seem to care about the fact that 800,000,000 people will go to bed hungry tonight."
He said that what he called "evacuation theology," or the idea that "Jesus is your ticket to somewhere else," is dangerous because it can cause people to miss Christ's message about how to live in such harmony with God that you are creating a heaven on Earth.
"Jesus taught his disciples to pray, not 'God, beam me up,' but 'Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,'" Bell said.
In fact, Jesus didn't talk much about the afterlife at all, he says.
"Jesus comes and announces the action is here and the action is now," Bell said.
His 10,000-member Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., has grown significantly under his leadership. He has made online videos and written other books that have been popular among younger evangelicals.
For many traditional Christians, Bell's book seems a lot like universalism – a heresy for many churches. It teaches that everyone, regardless of belief, will be saved by God. They argue that misleads people about the reality of the Christian faith. Bell has said he doesn't teach universalism.
He says hell is something freely chosen that already exists on earth.